Origins and Spread
Birth and Early
Life of Muhammad (570)
Muhammad is born in
Mecca. Orphaned by age 6 and cared for by his uncle. At the age of 9 or
12, he began working as a camel driver on trade routes between Arabia
and Syria. By adulthood, Muhammad ran his own caravan, becoming a
successful trade merchant, a livelihood he continued up until the time of his visions at
age 40. As a trade merchant, Muhammad was exposed to Judaism,
Christianity, and a variety of polytheistic religions.
Vision and Early
Muhammad (who refused to worship Arabian tribal gods) had begun
meditating several weeks each year in a cave near Mecca. In 610,
according to Islamic tradition, he was visited by the Angel Gabriel.
Gabriel delivered the verses of the Qur’an to Muhammad, who committed
them to memory rather than writing them down, as he could not read or
write. He claimed to be instructed to preach and convert his fellow
Arabs, to rescue them from their “idol” worship. He immediately
encountered heavy persecution. Muhammad faced ridicule, but was
physically protected by his prominent Hashim family. Opponents tried to
persuade the Hashims to withdraw protection (meaning blood revenge
required if he were killed), which they refused. Muhammad attempted to
make Islam less threatening to fellow Arabs by positioning it as another
Arabian religion, replete with reminiscent pilgrimages and rituals, but
with belief and worship of the one and only “Allah” (God) instead of the
various Arabian gods.
Mecca for Medina (619)
Muhammad’s wife died,
as did his uncle, leader of the Hashim clan. The new clan leadership
withdrew protection of Muhammad. He moved to Medina after converts
offered protection there. Converts grew substantially in Medina. All
converted Meccans followed him to Medina. Muhammad eagerly began
preaching among the Jewish tribes of Medina, presenting Islam as a
continuation to Jewish prophecy, and himself as the last in line of
Hebrew prophets. He also taught that believers should pray toward the
direction of Jerusalem. When they rejected him as a prophet, he changed
the prayer direction toward Mecca.
Muhammad Rises to
Power in Medina and War with Mecca (620-28)
Muhammad is nominated
as a judge in Medina in 620. Mecca confiscated property and land of
departing Muslims, prompting Muslims of Medina to raid Mecca caravans.
Muhammad gave a decree in the Qur’an calling for Muslims to wage war
against Mecca. From 624-28, Muhammad leads Medina Muslims in an
inconclusive war against Mecca.
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Arabian Peninsula (628-32)
In 628, Medina and
Mecca enter into a peace treaty. Muhammad redirects focus to surrounding
Arab and Jewish tribes, in an attempt to convert them to Islam via
military force. By 630, the Muslims had gained substantially in strength
and numbers. When Mecca aided an ally tribe in their invasion of a tribe
allied with Medina, the truce was broken, and Muhammad conquered Mecca.
All of Mecca was converted to Islam, and vestiges of traditional
polytheistic religions were destroyed. Through military conquest and
negotiations, Muhammad proceeded to conquer nearly all remaining Arabic
tribes throughout Arabia, with most Arabs being converted to Islam.
Death of Muhammad
and Expansion of Muslim Empire (632-1000)
After the death of
Muhammad in 632, the Muslims aggressively expanded north to gain control
over badly needed resources to support the emerging Arab-Muslim Empire,
which was growing powerful in military might, but confined in the
resource-deprived Arabian Peninsula. Initially, Muslim Arabs did not
intend to convert conquered peoples, who were allowed to practice their
existing forms of worship. The primary expectation was that they comply
with Arab-Muslim rule. Islam was still viewed primarily as an Arab
religion, and early on during the expansion of the Muslim Empire,
conversion was often discouraged.
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As garrisons of Arab
soldiers were stationed throughout the Near-East, in places such as
Iraq, they intermixed with the local populations, establishing Islam as
the family religion, spreading Islam in the process. Others voluntarily
converted, due to the break-down of their own religious heritages, which
suffered when they were no longer upheld by local political entities.
Plus, Islam was accompanied by tax breaks and increased social-political
Initial converts were
often treated with hostility, by the non-pious Umayyad Dynasty (661-750)
in particular, who were concerned over the dilution of Arab favoritism
and reduced tax revenues. The Umayyads actively limited conversions. The
more pious Abbasid Dynasty (750-930) made conversion to Islam widely
available, increasing the percentage of Muslims within the empire from
about 40% before their rule, to nearly 100% during their reign.
Following the collapse of the Abbasid Dynasty, ending Arab rule of the
Muslim Empire, much of the former empire would be conquered by nomadic
Turk and Mongol tribal confederacies. Turks and Mongols generally
converted to Islam themselves, carrying the Islamic mantle forward, and
further spreading its reach throughout Central/Southern Asia and into
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